‘Tell Them We Are Rising’: Q&A with filmmaker Stanley Nelson The documentary highlighting and celebrating the importance of HBCUs airs Monday night on PBS

Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was on a mission.

After more than 20 years of experience directing and producing, Nelson believed it was time to pay homage to historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) that have done so much to contribute to the world in which we live today. The 100-plus HBCUs still in existence were the first to extend a warm welcome to black students who sought higher education, and many of the black doctors, lawyers, inventors and civic figures heralded for their work to better mankind were the very students who were first turned away from predominantly white institutions.

Thinking of those who came before him, including his father, who graduated from Howard University, Nelson was prepared to celebrate the successes of HBCUs with compelling storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced the power of education at black colleges and universities.

Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Black Colleges and Universities begins with the enslavement of black people, when education was forbidden, and explores the arduous journey individuals took to fight for what others had. The documentary ties these connections to modern-day education and transforms into an explanation of why HBCUs still remain so important to our society. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students enrolled at HBCUs rose by 32 percent between 1976 and 2015. Total enrollment in degree-granting institutions increased by 81 percent, from 11 million to 20 million, during that period.

Tell Them We Are Rising debuts Monday on PBS’ Independent Lens at 9 p.m. ET. Follow the conversation on social media through the hashtag #HBCURising.

The documentary airs tonight. How are you feeling about the nationwide debut of Tell Them We Are Rising?

I’m feeling great. It’s been a year since we premiered at Sundance, so it’s been a year of gearing up to get it seen by a wider audience on TV. It feels great.

How long had the documentary been in the making?

We were probably about three years in production, but probably about five years before that in terms of writing proposals, honing down the idea, and then raising money. And it’s been done for a year. So probably about nine years since the first time I said, hey, let’s do a film about HBCUs, until today. It’s been percolating for a long time.

How were the stories selected?

It was kind of a complicated process. One of the things about this film is that there’s hundreds of great stories of HBCUs, so there’s hundreds of different ways to go. We wanted to tell stories that were dramatic, that were entertaining, that gave an idea of the progression of HBCU history. And there are a couple of stories and ideas that we knew going in that we wanted to cover. So I knew, going in, that I wanted the film to start at the time of enslavement, when education was denied to African-Americans and to set up the idea of the importance of education as something that was denied to African-Americans that became much more important to have that thing that was denied. So there were certain stories like that we knew we wanted to cover. The Howard law school story, the amazing story of it bringing the Brown v. Board of Education suit to fruition. It was a matter of looking for other stories that would help us to tell this long, incredible story of black colleges and universities.

Were there any stories told in the documentary that you wish you could’ve spent more time on?

I think that it all worked out for us. We wanted to tell stories. We didn’t want this to just be a list of a bunch of schools. We went in knowing that what we were telling were short stories. We’re not telling the stories of the killings at Southern in an hourlong documentary. We’re not telling the DuBois-Booker T. story in an hourlong documentary. In some ways, going in, it was freeing to know that I could tell these as short stories.

Were there any stories that didn’t make the cut, but resonated with you?

One thing that happens for me, to be perfectly honest, is that when I finish the film, I kind of don’t think too much about what I didn’t use or couldn’t use or something that I wish I could use. I think, for me, it would just drive me insane to see the film and think about what I wish I could’ve done. So I kind of look at it as a whole. For however my mind works, it’s really good at that. Because I forget. I know stories that we cut, but I don’t feel bad that we cut them. If we had another five hours, we could give you another five hours of stories. I don’t think that you’d want to sit there and watch them, but we could give you those stories.

There are emotions that surface while watching certain scenes. As a producer, director, writer, how do you sort of control your own emotions when piecing these scenes together?

One of the things that happens is you go into producer-director mode and if you know you’re getting something that’s emotional, where the former governor of Louisiana [Edwin Edwards] even today blames the students for getting killed. We know that that was a great piece of film that was really going to help the film. You’re kind of in that other space. I’m a filmmaker, and I realized I was getting something that was going to really serve the production and the film. Inside, I’m not angry. Part of me is just saying, ‘Yes! I’m getting something good here.’ At that point, it’s not about me. It’s about being able to tell this story in a very powerful way to a great number of people.

Later on in the documentary, you have the quote from Richard Robert Wright to Oliver Otis Howard about the plight of former slaves. “Tell them we are rising,” is what Wright said. What about that response spoke so deeply that you wanted to name the documentary after it?

One of the things that happens so many times when you make a film is that sometimes, you have a name going in. You know what you want to call the film before you have the film. Sometimes, you’re in the final stages of editing and you’re still trying to figure out what the name of it is. When we heard that story, we just thought that it embodied so much of the history of black colleges and universities. When the young man told them,”Tell them we are rising,” we thought that was a great title and really kind of had the feeling that we wanted the film to have. The feeling of rising, of positivity, of moving forward.

There’s one point in the documentary where HBCU grads spoke about the type of care and concern teachers showed. It was almost like extended family. Do you think that still exists at HBCUs today?

I think one of the things that HBCUs have done and still do is that they provide a very nurturing environment for their students and that’s been one of the hallmarks for HBCUs since the beginning. That’s something that they still do today. They not only educate, but tell students they can do it. There’s a huge number of students on Pell grants. There’s a huge number of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college. Students are going to need that nurturing, support, that love that they’ll get at HBCUs. It helps them to go forward. In my own family, my father and his brother were the first people to graduate high school. My father went on to Howard and was nurtured there. He was told over and over again that he could do it, that college was for him and he could make it. He went on to the [Howard University College of Dentistry], became a dentist, and is one of the reasons why I’m sitting here talking to you today.

In the 1970s, there were protests at Southern University stemming from financial problems and resources being distributed unevenly. Today, it seems like some of our schools continue that uphill battle. What will it take to preserve these legacies? How can HBCUs survive and thrive?

What I’ve realized today is that we can philosophize about what they need, but really the answer to that is what we can do to support HBCUs. That’s either to support your school or the school of your choice. You can support the Thurgood Marshall College Fund or the United Negro College Fund, which together financially represents the vast majority of HBCUs. Naturally, the question is what can I do to support these HBCUs. And I think it is to give financially. I’m going to do that. I’m going to start tithing my little bit of money per month to HBCUs, and I’ll be glad to do it. I will feel better knowing me and my family give every month to support HBCUs. I think that’s really the answer. We can talk about what HBCUs can do better, but that real question is what we can do as individuals — and collectively?

You’ve visited various HBCU campuses to promote Tell Them We Are Rising. What was that like?

It was crazy. It was great. People came in their school colors and we had standing ovations. What was interesting was that people came from the different cities and towns we were in and also in other school colors, because not everybody in that town went to the same school. People would cheer when their schools came on. The reaction was just wonderful.

These are the schools that I’ve gone to with the film: Howard, Dillard, Jackson State, Virginia State, Fisk, Claflin, Florida A&M, Tennessee State, Texas Southern, Southern, Shaw, Benedict, Morgan State, South Carolina State, Morehouse, Clark Atlanta, Spelman, North Carolina Central and Allen. Those are the schools that I went to. The film also went to many other schools that I didn’t visit myself. It’s been incredible to be on these campuses, to be with the students and faculty, and see the energy and the love the people have for their HBCUs.

I would be exhausted if I were you.

I am! But it’s been great and fun.

What’s next for you?

[Tell Them We Are Rising] is part of a trilogy we’re doing for PBS. The first film was The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. The third is called The Slave Trade: Creating a New World, which is about the Atlantic slave trade and the business of slavery. We’ll be taking a new look at all the incredible new research that’s been done on the slave trade and try to look at it as this business that existed and set so many things that we know today.

How do you balance promotion of this film, and production on the next?

I don’t know how to answer that question. We have a great producer working on the slave trade project. The producer is researching and getting the project off the ground. We’re still raising money for that project and we’re going to go into full production mode pretty soon. We did the same thing with Tell Them We Are Rising. I was running around with the Black Panthers, and we had a great co-producer and co-director named Marco Williams who really worked to do research, get the project off the ground and do a lot of the interviews with this film. As a filmmaker who wants to eat and support a family, it’s not like I can make a film and then stop, wait another year and go on to the next film. I have to figure out how to keep working.

What do you hope the audience takes away from this documentary? Is there one thing you hope resonates more than others?

I hope that the audience is entertained. It’s one of the things we try to do while making these films. Sometimes, they can have a very important and lasting point, but it doesn’t do anything if you’re not entertained by the film. We want them to be entertained and be told something new and have them learn from these great stories that we tell. But the bottom line is that, hopefully at the end, they understand the importance and the pivotal role that black colleges have played not only in the lives of African-Americans, but in all Americans in the world. At certain changing points in our history, it’s been black colleges and black college students who have led the way.


Why ‘Tell Them We Are Rising’ is a must-see The documentary tells the story of how black colleges brought our people out of slavery

I have watched Stanley Nelson’s documentary, Tell Them We Are Rising, three times now.

The first viewing was in 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival, where Nelson and his team received a standing ovation after the audience watched the film. The second was last summer at a private screening in New York, where Nelson discussed the film and filmmaking with five students from historically black colleges. The third time I joined an audience in the Oprah Winfrey Theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to view the film on Monday with Nelson in attendance.

Each viewing uncovers new nuggets of insight that underlined the tenacity and resilience of enslaved men and women so desperate for education that they risked death to learn to read.

Nelson said he was inspired to tackle Tell Them We Are Rising for multiple reasons.

His parents attended historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). His mother, Alleluia Ransom, attended Talladega College in Alabama. His father, Dr. Stanley Nelson, attended Howard University. “That changed their lives, and it changed my life,” he said.

Nelson’s larger vision was to pay homage to a significant African-American institution. The subject was not particularly sexy, but it illuminated the quest for black freedom through the prism of higher education. “There have been just a few institutions that we’ve had as African-Americans that have sustained us,” Nelson said during a recent interview. “One of them is black colleges and universities. I thought that it was a story that nobody was lining up to tell.”

With several Emmys, a Peabody and MacArthur Fellowship, Nelson has become one of the country’s most accomplished documentarians. This film, Tell Them We Are Rising, may have been one of the most difficult he has attempted.

There were challenges and hurdles. The first was how to take a collection of great but individual HBCU stories and weave them into a narrative that described a powerful, overarching experience.

“So many times, people think of it as the Morgan State story or the Howard story or the Fisk story or the Spelman story,” Nelson said. “Nobody was looking at it as a united story.”

Unlike his powerful civil rights documentary Freedom Summer, based on Raymond Arsenault’s book Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, there was no one classic text to draw from. In Tell Them We Are Rising, Nelson and his team had to piece together footage, articles, photographs, “everything we could” to tell a captivating story.

The other challenge was telling the story of an institution whose history continues to unfold.

His 2015 documentary, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, accounted for a period between 1966 to 1972 and chronicled certain watershed moments. By contrast, Tell Them We Are Rising covers the 150-year journey of black colleges in 90 minutes.

Some scenes were especially hard to watch, as the film explores historical events particularly personal to African-American viewers, such as the killings by law enforcement of Southern University students Denver Smith and Leonard Brown during 1972 protests, which remain unsolved.

Every black college graduate 65 or older lived through one of these moments, whether at a predominantly white institution petitioning for more black awareness or at an HBCU petitioning a conservative administration to take back its blackness.

But as president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund Michael Lomax said, the story of HBCUs is not simply a story of deprivation, need and want.

“The story of HBCUs as Stanley tells it is the story of powerful action,” Lomax said. “There are so many stories to choose from we had to figure out what stories would work and leave the audience with a sense of what black colleges have been and maybe where they are going.”

One of the most poignant moments of Tell Them We Are Rising takes place at Spelman College when Alversia Wade, an incoming freshman, explains why she chose the institution.

Wade spent her young academic career, from kindergarten through high school, as the single black student in her school. She describes the feeling of walking on campus and seeing a sea of fellow black students. “They all look like you,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “They all looked like you.”

Tell Them We are Rising, which airs Monday night on PBS, comes at a time when there is a hunger for positive, powerful images and good news within the far-flung black community.

On Friday, Marvel’s much-anticipated superhero film, Black Panther, will open in theaters across the country. Nelson was working on his Black Panther documentary when Marvel announced it was planning to release its superhero movie in 2018.

“When I first heard about it, I thought about Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver and the bunch,” Nelson said.

There was some confusion. “People would call up and say, ‘I hear you’re working on this Black Panther film, is it Marvel or is it DC?’ ” Nelson recalled. “I said it’s neither one of them. It’s real life.”

He looks forward to seeing the film. “It’s that it’s creating so much excitement. Like, it’s something African-Americans needed and didn’t know they needed.”

The HBCU student, in many ways, is like the hero of Black Panther — a mythical African superhero existing outside the suffocating institutionalized racism that defines virtually every minute, every hour, of life for black Americans. While their institutions are often under-resourced, black students who choose the HBCU experience enjoy the psychic respite and reinforcement of being in the majority.

At a time when 9 percent of black college students were enrolled at an HBCU in 2015, the often-asked question is do we still need HBCUs? The question overlooks the reality that 90 percent of black students are spread over thousands of predominantly white institutions, leaving those who attend a significant but often overwhelmed minority. The largest concentration of young black college students resides at the nation’s historically black colleges and universities. For many young students, that alone is worth the price of the ticket.

HBCUs are not for everyone, no more than single-gender schools are not for everyone. Still, black colleges and universities are needed more than ever.

During a post-film panel discussion Monday, former Spelman president Johnetta Cole said, “If historically black colleges and universities did not exist, we would have to invent them. … Since they do exist, we have an extraordinary responsibility to support them.”

“Until racism and racialism end in this country, there will be a need for HBCUs,” Nelson told me. “Until the education system is an even playing field — from elementary school to junior high school until college, until those things are equal — we still need HBCUs. Until we have an equal society, young African-American people need a safe intellectual space that HBCUs provide.”

Lomax, the United Negro College Fund president and CEO, said Tell Them We Are Rising was “an inspirational story. It is a call to action to our community, first and foremost to invest in them, to own them, to support them and to ensure that they remain durable in the future.”

That resonates.

Tell Them We Are Rising challenges those of us who attended HBCUs. A challenge to look in the mirror, to step up, to donate what Cole referred to as the three Ts: our time, our talent and our treasure.

This is the only way HBCUs will continue to rise.

“These institutions will not survive without our support,” she said. “It’s as simple as that.”

To share in the conversation about Tell them We Are Rising, join us on social media Monday, using the hashtags #HBCURising and #BHMxHBCU.

King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ explains the rage over the NFL anthem protests and the persistence of racial injustice Re-reading the famous letter today shows how much still needs to change

On Feb. 11, at 8 p.m., The Undefeated will present Dear Black Athlete, a one-hour special on ESPN featuring conversations with athletes and community leaders about social justice. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the program will be taped at Birmingham’s Sixth Avenue Baptist Church, where King spoke and led civil rights marches. Below, we examine the meaning of King’s letter in today’s racial climate.

Martin Luther King Jr. penned his Letter from Birmingham Jail in a narrow cell on newspaper margins, scraps of paper and smuggled-in legal pads. He had no notes or reference materials. Yet, King’s eloquent defense of nonviolent protest and searing critique of moderation continues to resonate in a nation still divided by race.

In 1963, the letter spoke truth to white clergymen who called him a troublemaker for coming to Birmingham, Alabama, to confront that city’s harsh segregation and racial violence. In 2018, King’s tract stands as a beacon to a new generation of activists impatient with injustice perpetuated less by flush-faced bigots than by the ostensibly colorblind institutions that structure our society.

King’s letter famously said creating tension was necessary to the work of nonviolent protesters, and that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” He called out the white church for being an “arch supporter of the status quo,” and castigated its ministers for urging members to comply with desegregation because it is the law, not because it is morally right and “the Negro is your brother.” He also expressed grave disappointment with white moderates, whom he described as “more devoted to order than justice.”

The letter was “prophetic,” said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks racial extremist groups. “King really calls out systemic racism and, particularly, systemic anti-black racism. And, of course, it persists today.”

Brooks hears echoes of the white clergymen who accused King of inciting violence in the stinging criticism of NFL players who protested racial inequities by taking a knee during the national anthem.

“What they have done is in the tradition of nonviolent protest. It forces people to have a conversation,” she said. “But the pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ They are like the outsiders that the clergy mentioned in going after King.”

King’s letter was written nearly a decade after the Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, but Alabama’s largest city operated under its own rules. Black people could not work or try on clothes in downtown stores. They were given used books in separate schools, and made to wait in separate waiting rooms at public hospitals. Those who challenged the established order risked the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan or other terrorists who enforced apartheid so savagely that the town was nicknamed “Bombingham.”

Today, the city is no longer segregated by law, and violent racists no longer run amok. But segregation remains: Many whites fled the city, and its schools are 99 percent black and Hispanic. The city’s poverty rate is more than 30 percent. Then there is the racial wealth gap, income gap, unemployment gap, school achievement gap, incarceration gap and life expectancy gap. It is a story common to many parts of the country.

“The pushback has been ugly. It’s like, ‘We’re sick of you, the nerve of the NFL players.’ “

Birmingham is now led by Mayor Randall Woodfin, 36, a proud Morehouse College graduate who is among the more than 10,000 black elected officials serving across the country.

“It is hard to read King’s letter and not want to re-reread it and re-read it again,” he said, calling it the civil rights leader’s seminal piece. Not only does it lay out the steps, from self-education to negotiation, that should precede protest, Woodfin said, but it also makes a historical case for why black people are impatient for real change.

“We have black leadership now. But some of the things Dr. King was talking about as it relates to poverty and better education and opportunity, they still exist,” Woodfin said. “We need to be bolder in correcting things we know are not working for many people.”

Better education funding, longer school years, seamless coordination between schools, libraries and recreation centers are some of the things that Woodfin thinks could help. “We are not spending enough time with our children,” he said. “We need to do more with workforce development, that entire pipeline from birth until young people cross that stage.”

But winning support for such initiatives is difficult in Birmingham, much like it is in Detroit or Baltimore or East St. Louis, Illinois. The city alone does not have the wealth to pay for those things, and white taxpayers in neighboring communities do not see problems in places like Birmingham’s as theirs. If polls are any indication, almost none of those white suburbanites see themselves as racist. But they are the present-day equivalent of the moderates King wrote about, minimizing the importance of discrimination in the ongoing struggles of places like Birmingham.

Seven in 10 African-Americans surveyed in a 2016 Pew Research Center poll cited discrimination as a reason blacks have a harder time than whites getting ahead, a view shared by just 36 percent of white respondents. A series of independent studies have found that black people still face discrimination from the criminal justice system, from employers, from real estate agents, and from banks and mortgage companies. Yet, when asked about the racial fairness of institutions fundamental to American life — courts, police, the workplace, mortgage companies — white people are much less likely than African-Americans to say black people are treated unfairly. White evangelicals, who are most prominent in the South, were the group least likely to perceive discrimination against blacks, according to a 2017 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute. Only 36 percent of white evangelicals reported perceiving a lot of discrimination against black people.

Growing up white in Birmingham, the Rev. Jim Cooley said segregation was a way of life that as a child he never stopped to examine. “It was a different planet then,” said Cooley, who is now pastor of the city’s First Baptist Church. One of his predecessors, the Rev. Earl Stallings, was among the eight clergymen who signed the statement that prompted King’s famous letter.

“I remember seeing separate bathrooms and separate water fountains as a youngster. I guess it was a tribute to my parents that I did not think of it as this is ‘upper’ and that is ‘lower.’ My impression was that there was some natural reason for this that I did not understand.”

Now he knows better, and he thanks King for helping to transform his city. He says the new Birmingham is evident in his own church’s growing racial diversity and the fact that its black organist causes no one in the congregation to as much as raise an eyebrow. He also sees black and white people coming together in civic groups to address the city’s many problems.

Still, Cooley acknowledged that huge racial disparities remain. Some are no doubt the result of Birmingham’s long history of racism, he says. But he thinks the gaps have as much to do with educational shortcomings and social isolation that he said also hinders many white people.

“If I walk around my neighborhood, there is an English couple. A man across the way is involved in the Sons of the Confederacy. There is an African-American doctor. Next to him, an Indian veterinarian and a Chinese pharmacist,” Cooley said. “There is less friction now, for sure. While everything was so drastically race-driven 50 or 60 years ago, now it is about opportunity and education. And that cuts across all kinds of racial strata.”

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, 67, the longtime president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in middle-class black Birmingham, as did former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, activist Angela Davis and Alma Powell, the wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. It was a nurturing world of high aspirations tightly controlled by the constant threat of racial violence.

“When we went downtown, we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register,” he recalled. “No police, firemen, nothing. It is hard to understand if you were not there just how dramatically different the world was then.”

Hrabowski was 12 years old when he was arrested and held for five days for taking part in the “Children’s Crusade,” waves of demonstrations that King launched not long after he was released from the Birmingham jail.

“When we went downtown we knew we were not part of mainstream Birmingham because there was nobody black in a position of power, not even at a cash register.”

Hrabowski brings the lessons he learned then to his work as president of UMBC, a public university just outside Baltimore. During his more than quarter-century at the university’s helm, he has turned the once nondescript commuter school into one of the nation’s top producers of African-American doctorates in science, technology, engineering and math.

That has not happened by accident. Hrabowski had made it his business to mentor and support black students and those from other underrepresented groups. Hrabowski promotes his school with evangelical zeal and brings at-risk students to campus to help them learn the habits of academic success. He promotes his sharpest science nerds as if they were rap stars, and he singles out basketball players with high grades so they can be seen as both athletic and academic role models.

He shed tears of joy in November when a black woman from suburban Maryland, 21-year-old Naomi Mburu, was named UMBC’s first Rhodes scholar. And when the university opened its new basketball arena and events center last weekend, he made sure Mburu strode onto center court, where she was introduced to the crowd at halftime.

It’s his way of battling the pervasive injustice he once endured in Birmingham.

Hrabowski noted that back when King penned his letter only 2 or 3 percent of African-Americans were college graduates, as were roughly 10 percent of whites. Now, according to the Census Bureau, 23 percent of African-American adults are four-year college graduates, as are almost 37 percent of whites.

“We’ve made tremendous progress since Dr. King’s letter, yes we have,” Hrabowski said. “You want to acknowledge that progress. But a lot of people are left behind, and to solve that we have to look at the unjust policies that Dr. King talks about. Just because it is in the structure, doesn’t mean it is just.”

Without Charles Burnett and the L.A. Rebellion, there is no ‘Moonlight’ Why the motion picture academy is honoring the director of a film about slaughtering sheep

There’s no Moonlight without Charles Burnett.

Burnett, 73, is the director best known for his feature debut, Killer of Sheep. But beyond that, he’s the auteur behind To Sleep With Anger, arguably the best performance of Danny Glover’s career. His 1994 film The Glass Shield, which starred Ice Cube, was an exploration of corruption and racism within the Los Angeles Police Department. With 23 directorial credits to his name, Burnett has had a massive impact on independent filmmaking.

On Saturday, he will be honored at the Governors Awards ceremony, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognizes contributions to the film industry. Its honorees usually include individuals who might not have been acknowledged with Oscars awarded during the academy’s ritzy annual televised fete, and they often include artists who have used their platforms to advocate for social change. Harry Belafonte, for example, received the board’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2014.

Nearly 40 years ago, Burnett was an upstart director at the forefront of a movement of students of color enrolled in UCLA’s film school. His thesis film, Killer of Sheep, made on a tiny budget, was beautifully poetic. It was about black people who didn’t have much money, and it starred first-time, untrained actors.

The film follows its main character, Stan (Henry G. Sanders), who works in a slaughterhouse killing — you guessed it — sheep. He hates it, but he needs the income to support his family.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility. It’s a look at how doing something you hate for eight hours a day deadens your soul. And when that job involves taking life from another being, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from that killing and it can make you feel personally targeted by Murphy’s law. There’s a point in Killer of Sheep where Stan is planning to sell an engine to make a little extra cash. Alas, when he and his friend hoist it onto the back of a truck, it falls off almost as soon as they start driving. The engine block gets cracked, rendering it useless, and so they just leave it in the middle of the street, because really, what’s the point?

While he was able to work more than many of his UCLA classmates, Burnett didn’t engage in filmmaking as a way to get rich. Throughout his career, Burnett sought to highlight the humanity of black people and to stay true to his politics. When he wasn’t making his own films, he often served as a cinematographer on others.

The fact that the academy’s board of governors is bestowing an award upon Burnett the same year Moonlight won best picture makes for a lovely tribute and a fitting piece of symmetry. You see, the film that won best picture this year had the tiniest budget of any best picture. It was about black people who didn’t have much money. It starred first-time, untrained actors. It was the first film with an all-black cast to win best picture. It was lauded as a work of cinematic poetry. And Moonlight was helmed by a black director, Barry Jenkins, who, with both Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, seems to have carried forth Burnett’s legacy in black independent film.

Killer of Sheep is a meditation on blackness, broke-ness and social mobility.

“There were many movies that should have been recognized before — at least up for an Academy Award or nominated,” Burnett said. “But I hope that what Moonlight does, the effect it would have or should have is that maybe Hollywood would look around and start releasing films that previously they thought would never make it, you know that … no white audience would be interested in. This sort of proves them all wrong, again and again. You know, so I hope it has a big change that they can start recognizing the potential of people who are really interested in seeing human stories, not just the typical car chases and violence continually being represented over and over and over again.”

The L.A. Rebellion

Burnett was part of a movement of filmmakers now known as the L.A. Rebellion. It comprised about 50 filmmakers, including Burnett, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Haile Gerima (Sankofa, Ashes and Embers), who attended UCLA film school between 1970 and 1992. Besides black students, it included Chicano and Asian students as well, all working to create a movement that rejected the confines that Hollywood had created for anyone who wasn’t white. The movement began when filmmaker and professor Elyseo J. Taylor began a program in the film department called Film and Social Change. Moonlight’s best picture win, in some ways, was a culmination of mainstream recognition of the principles for which the L.A. Rebellion had long been advocating.

The perspective of the L.A. Rebellion was originally informed by living through the Watts uprising of 1965, chafing at police violence and racism, housing segregation and discrimination. It’s filled with curiosity about black people’s African origins and their connections to their ancestors, and a love and commitment to seeing the beauty in themselves. Often, the works were more experimental than traditional Hollywood fare, rejecting three- or five-act structures with easily identifiable protagonists and antagonists. The work of the L.A. Rebellion was like a black American New Wave, influenced by Third World Film and Italian Neo-Realism because Hollywood was so centered on whiteness and white conceptions of blackness. L.A Rebellion filmmakers didn’t see a place for black authenticity, so they created one.

It was distinct from ’70s blaxploitation and more in the vein of the 1961 adaptation of playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, although — and this is hugely significant — unlike A Raisin in the Sun director Daniel Petrie, these directors were actually black. They had far more control over the images they were presenting than Hansberry did when she agreed to work on the film version of Raisin, one of the notable depictions of a regular black family in Chicago.

Blaxploitation, which became so popular and so profitable in the 1970s, “didn’t show us who we really are,” Burnett said. “It was basically things that were entertaining at the expense of who we are as people and how it would affect generations to come. It didn’t show us who we are; it didn’t have any empathy.”

Burnett recounted a time, after one of his films had been shown at a festival, when an audience member told him he didn’t realize black people had washing machines.

Washing. Machines.

“I remember … seeing Japanese represent themselves on-screen and I was so surprised and taken, and I started looking at people differently and you see the effect of this constant barrage of distorted images, what it can do to you,” he continued. “So you can sort of understand how people looking at your films, the films of color, you know how it sort of opens their eyes and it makes you aware of people as human beings. I think that’s what art does, it makes you aware of these subtle things that we all share.”

Of all of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, Burnett had the most prolific career. Killer of Sheep, now nearly 40 years old, is a breathtaking work, even more so when considering Burnett made it while still a student.

“I was in New York, just starting my music video career, when Charles Burnett’s film — ‘The Sheep Movie,’ as we call it — sort of rattled everybody. … Like, wow, this is a real director,” said Paris Barclay, who in 2013 became the first black and first openly gay person to be elected president of the Directors Guild of America. “He’s one of the reasons why I thought, ‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’ It’s one of the things that led me out of music videos into doing feature film and then later television.”

Even though Saturday’s award is going to Burnett, it feels like a win for other directors from the L.A. Rebellion, such as Dash and Gerima. After they spent years outside the Hollywood system, the academy finally invited Dash and Gerima to join its ranks in 2016.

‘Hey, a black man can do a feature film like this and rip my heart out? Why can’t I do this?’

University of California, San Diego professor Zeinabu irene Davis, one of the last filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, is largely responsible for curating and preserving its history, which she compiled in the documentary Spirits of Rebellion: Black Independent Cinema From Los Angeles. (She expects Spirits of Rebellion to be released on home video in the next year or so.)

“The legacy of Charles in American cinema is something that should be celebrated in a big way,” Davis said. “You know, too many times in the cinema history books, when you read about black cinema, most of the times it’s just a caption on the side. A still image from Killer of Sheep, and then just a caption underneath it. If you get really lucky, then it might be a paragraph. But I think that there should be more recognition of the contributions that the L.A. Rebellion film movement gave to American cinema, and especially American independent cinema in general. It should be honored, and it should be celebrated with more than just a brief mention.

“I wish there was more places where people could actually get to see his work, or more venues that would honor his work.”

This is what influence looks like

Burnett’s thematic, aesthetic and emotional markers are all over Moonlight, if you know what you’re looking for.

To the filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, it wasn’t just important to create works that captured black people as they were, it was also important to include their communities in the storytelling, training them to be crew members or casting them in their films. That was also partly out of financial necessity — it took a village to make a film.

That’s a tradition Jenkins continued with Moonlight, and in interviews he’s talked about the fact that residents of Miami’s Liberty City housing projects appreciated having the Moonlight film crew’s lights around at night. Their presence helped make the neighborhood safer because drug dealers would shoot out the streetlights.

Killer of Sheep does not follow a conventional plot structure because it’s about existing with its main character, going about a day the way Stan does, and understanding why Stan feels the way he does. It’s meant to be contemplative. Moonlight functions similarly with its main character, Chiron. The difference is that it’s divided into three acts, and Chiron is played by three different actors at distinct points in his life.

There’s something striking about Killer of Sheep’s depiction of the dangers of ordinary life, from a scene of children playing on train tracks that has you holding your breath until they’re all safe to Stan’s work in a slaughterhouse. It’s shot in black and white, and the emphasis of the film is on understanding how Stan’s work and financial struggles color his interactions with his family and the way he lives his life. The film boasts an extraordinary soundtrack, which features music such as Paul Robeson singing “The House I Live In.” A tender scene between Stan and his wife (played by Kaycee Moore) is punctuated with Dinah Washington’s “This Bitter Earth.” It’s completely wordless yet utterly effective, not unlike the beach scene between Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

The bathtub scene in Moonlight, which shows Little (Alex Hibbert) heating water on the stove of his apartment, then carrying it to the tub, feels directly tied to Burnett and his insistence on capturing the unglamorous, everyday life of poor black people and finding the beauty and profundity in it. So do the scenes in which Jenkins captures black children playing, similarly elevated by Nicholas Britell’s score.

“[Burnett’s] someone that’s been long overlooked but is a seminal figure for many of us, along with Spike [Lee] in the late ’80s,” Barclay said. “We were just thinking, who are our voices out there? Who are we emulating? He was one of those people.”

So why is Burnett still a cult figure while Lee is probably the best-known black independent filmmaker of our time?

1) Lee is enormously prolific. He’s like a shark that never stops moving. He’s constantly creating, producing and influencing, and as a result he’s made about three times as many films as Burnett — some of which, admittedly, have been clunkers.

2) Lee is unapologetically outspoken. His Driving Miss Daisy rant is the filmmaker version of Allen Iverson and “practice.”

3) He helped establish his identity by putting himself in his movies. He has, essentially, branded himself. We don’t just know Lee as a director, but as Mars Blackmon, as a man who goes hard for Brooklyn, shows up at AfroPunk and never stops supporting the Knicks. He’s a New York institution.

Burnett, on the other hand, like so many black American jazz artists and social critics, found that he was far more celebrated overseas than he was at home.

“I think that was a saving grace in many ways, going over there and being written about in all the major magazines and newspapers,” Burnett said. “If you know your history, you sort of understand that — not that you accept it — but it makes you aware that things repeat themselves. And also gives you a sense of connectedness in the sense that you can look back at people like [James] Baldwin, Chester Himes and all those folks … like W.E.B. Du Bois. How we’re doing the same thing, and you feel a much closer connection with those folks you know because you experience what they experience. Like Josephine Baker. It’s both a plus and a minus.”

Because we’re still starved for equitable representations of blackness in pop culture despite the explosion of it in the past few years, it can be easy to overlook the parents of such images, especially if you didn’t learn about them in film school. That’s not just because we have short collective memories but because their work is often hard to find. To Sleep With Anger, which won multiple Independent Spirit Awards, can be streamed on Amazon video, but Killer of Sheep is only available on DVD, as is the director’s cut of My Brother’s Wedding. Similarly, when Gerima made Sankofa, the 1993 film that shares its name with his Washington, D.C., bookstore, he couldn’t acquire distribution, so he toured the film himself. It’s still not available on DVD or through a streaming service.

I asked Burnett what needs to happen for the traditions of the L.A. Rebellion to continue, to be remembered, to travel farther than the confines of the art house.

“There needs to be more of an education of the audience that you have to realize that if you see a film that you can respond to, you have to go out and support it immediately,” Burnett said. “You can’t wait for it to come on DVD. You have to show the studios and the producers the fact that these films are appreciated and they can make money, because if you wait till they come on television or on DVD or whatever it is, it loses its importance and effectiveness and influence, and towards influencing studios and people with money to finance these films.”

Daily Dose: 9/20/17 Jay-Z tells the NFL ‘no thanks’ on Super Bowl

Another busy week, but it’s been a productive one. My streak of appearances on Around The Horn without a win continues, and I hope I can make it all the way to breaking the record. Wish me luck.

Mother Nature is talking to us. In the past few months, the natural disaster rate globally has been astonishing. Stateside, you might only have these hurricanes on your radar, but it’s more than that. Mudslides in Sierra Leone have killed hundreds of people. An earthquake in Mexico has also taken numerous lives. Now, Hurricane Maria is sweeping across Puerto Rico. It’s just the latest storm to hit the Caribbean, where many islands have already been battered beyond belief.

Here’s how racism affects everyday life in the U.S.: If you don’t have to deal with it, you have the luxury of not understanding how its detritus still hurts people. So when the president of Lipscomb University invited black students to his school to discuss their experiences, he put cotton stalk decorations on the dinner table and didn’t even understand why that might be problematic. Reminder: The basic goods of American commerce (cotton, sugar, etc.) were exactly what slaves worked to create for free. Yes, people get sensitive about it.

Jay-Z has better things to do than play the Super Bowl. Various artists have turned the league down when asked to perform on its biggest stage, which is an interesting situation. Perhaps as interestingly, Justin Timberlake also said no, considering the two were rumored to be performing together. Whether this is directly attributable to, say, the Colin Kaepernick situation is for speculation, but, man, it would have been awesome if Jigga had performed “The Story of O.J.” at that game.

Speaking of Kaep, he’s getting some more shine this week. The Root has put out its annual list of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans, and the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback is No. 17. If you’re wondering who’s at the top of the list, it’s Jordan Peele, who is not exactly a controversial pick but is certainly a refreshing one. I’m happy to say I’ve got a couple of friends on this bad boy, which is always a cool feeling. I’ll never make this list, ha, but that said, if someone wants to invite me to the party to celebrate these folks, I’ll gladly go.

Free Food

Coffee Break: I don’t have children, but I do remember the value of Toys R Us. Just going there and seeing the sights was always a marvel, and now the company is fighting bankruptcy. It appears that, basically, there’s no need for brick-and-mortar toy stores anymore — and, of course, tablets. Sad day.

Snack Time: Hypebeasts do the most, which is why they are what they are, and we love them for it. Check out this new couch, which I would not sit on if I had to.

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Dessert: Boxer Jake LaMotta, who was portrayed in the legendary film Raging Bull, died Wednesday at age 95.

Here’s why black teachers are so important to education and to our children ‘Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflection From Black Teachers’ reinforces necessity to get more of them in classrooms

“Teachers of color bring benefits to classrooms beyond content knowledge and pedagogy.”

This is what a recent study from The Education Trust, a national nonprofit advocacy organization that promotes high academic achievement, claims. And it has data to back it up.

Teachers of color represent only 18 percent of the teaching population in the United States, and black teachers are 7 percent of the teaching population, according to Through Our Eyes: Perspectives and Reflection From Black Teachers, a report published late last year that gives voice to black teachers.

And yet today more than ever, the report rings true throughout America’s schools. In the midst of the personal accounts from teachers, the report cites the reasons that continuing to recruit teachers of color, as well as identifying and creating more ways to retain them, is important. It also explains the impact that black teachers have on students and the relevance of establishing relationships with students and parents.

According to its website, The Education Trust promotes high academic achievement for all students at all levels, prekindergarten through college. Its goal is to “close the gaps in opportunity and achievement that consign far too many young people — especially those from low-income families or who are Black, Latino, or American Indian — to lives on the margins of the American mainstream.”

These excerpts below have heightened relevance and meaning during National Teacher Appreciation Week:

“The difference I would like to make is a difference that my fifth-grade teacher, an African American woman, made [for] me,” says an elementary teacher from Oakland, California, who is also a Black woman.

She credits that teacher with instilling in her a love of math, but also with fostering the self-confidence that would buoy her when other teachers doubted her ability. Now, she tries to give all her students — and especially her Black students — that same assurance.

“I make sure I get to know each and every one of my kids, and let them know that they can do it.”

This teacher experienced what research has shown: As role models, parental figures and advocates, they can build relationships with students of color that help those students feel connected to their schools. And they are more likely to be able to enhance cultural understanding among white colleagues, teachers and students. Acting as “warm demanders,” they more frequently hold high expectations for all students and use connections with students to establish structured classroom discipline. Furthermore, they are more likely to teach in high-need schools that predominantly serve students of color and low-income students. Black teachers especially are more likely to stay in schools serving black students.

State and district leaders recognize the need to diversify the teacher workforce and are working to recruit more black and Hispanic teachers. And their efforts may be paying off: Research shows that the percentage of teachers of color in the workforce grew at twice the rate of white teachers from 1987 to 2012.

But while leaders have been busy trying to pour teachers of color into the profession, they have not plugged the drain through which too many exit. Indeed, teachers of color are exiting the profession at higher rates than other teachers.

Simply recruiting more teachers of color only gets them in the door; we must pay equal attention to creating the conditions to keep them. And while it is critical to diversify the teaching force, just having a black or Hispanic teacher in the classroom isn’t enough. They must be strong teachers, so diversity and excellence go hand in hand. Holding onto teachers of color, though, requires education leaders to understand their unique experiences and perspectives. And who better to learn from than the teachers themselves.

In March 2015, our research team set out to hear from teachers color, hosting a series of focus groups with black and Latino teachers around the country. We used data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS, 2012) to target states and districts with high numbers of teachers of color and solicited participants through schools, districts, and teacher organizations.

Our goal: to better understand their unique experiences, why they teach, their perspectives on the state of education, what they believe they bring to the classroom and the field, and challenges they may experience in the workplace because of their race. In this brief, we present findings from our discussions with black teachers. In forthcoming work, we will share what we heard from Latino teachers, as well.

The full report is worth reading.

Study proves black teachers have a significant impact on black students Black students with at least one black teacher are more inclined to continue education

May 8 kicks off National Teacher Appreciation Week, a celebration set aside to formally recognize educators. Traditionally, the observance occurs the first week in May. This year the annual celebration was moved, so The Undefeated will preview the week with inspiring stories centered on education, and next week we will continue with highlights of teachers and those who work in the field.

The relationship between black students and black teachers is saving academic careers, and a new study is out to prove it.

The study, The Long Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers, conducted by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, found that low-income black students who have had at least one black teacher during their early academic career have higher chances of graduating from high school and attending college.

Out of the 100,000 black students entering third grade in North Carolina public schools between 2001 and 2005 whom the study focused on, nearly 13 percent dropped out of high school while the remainder of students finished high school, but expressed no interest in attending college. The students who had at least one black teacher throughout those years were less likely to drop out, and more likely to express interest in college (18 percent). Black male students from low-income families who were exposed to at least one black teacher were the highest group to express interest in college (29 percent).

“Black students matched to black teachers have been shown to have higher test scores, but we wanted to know if these student-teacher racial matches had longer-lasting benefits,” said Nicholas Papageorge, the study’s co-author and an assistant professor in the department of economics at Johns Hopkins. “We found the answer is a resounding yes. We’re seeing spending just one year with a teacher of the same race can move the dial on one of the most frustratingly persistent gaps in educational attainment — that of low-income black boys. It not only moves the dial, it moves the dial in a powerful way.”

In cases of black children from low-income families who were introduced to at least one black teacher between third and fifth grades, the likelihood of dropping out of school decreased to 29 percent. For black male students from low-income families who were introduced to at least one black teacher between third and fifth grades, the probability fell to 39 percent.

To validate their most recent findings, the study’s researchers aligned their work with that of Project STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio), a study conducted in Tennessee in the 1980s that focused on a class size reduction. Black students who entered kindergarten were randomly assigned to various class sizes, and their learning patterns were monitored. The researchers’ findings about black students paired with black teachers were consistent with their own research, as 15 percent of black students in Project STAR who had at least one black teacher from kindergarten to third grade were less likely to drop out of school.

Papageorge says ensuring the success of a larger number of low-income black students is as simple as schools seeing to it that these students have access to at least one black teacher, beginning early in their academic careers.

“This isn’t a situation where students need two, three or four black teachers to make a difference,” Papageorge said. “This could be implementable tomorrow. You could literally go into a school right now and switch around the rosters so that every black child gets to face a black teacher.”